Long before the soil warms and frost ceases its nightly visits, spring takes root in the minds of gardeners. The first seed catalog arrives full of the promise of summer and the temptation of varieties untried. Then the next catalog arrives with new promises, and the next, and so on, and soon the dining table is lost under the piles of beckoning catalogs and there's little room to eat. No bother, there's little time to eat anyway, with so much reading to do, gardens to be planned, and seeds to be ordered. The time has come to make some decisions.
This article is written with the overstimulated and slightly confused gardener in mind. Here are some tips to help you evaluate the differences between catalog companies, to read between the lines of catalog and seed packet descriptions, and to accurately interpret variety information so you can choose the best plants for your garden.
Whatever tickles your fancy
All seed catalogs have distinct personalities, which is part of the reason why they are so enjoyable to read. The Pepper Gal catalog evokes the taste of spicy salsa and the image of strands of vibrant red chilies hanging in the kitchen. Howard Dill's Pumpkin Guide tempts gardeners to plan a new pumpkin patch so they can grow their own 500-pound granddaddy of giant pumpkins. If you think all garlic is created equal, the Filaree Farm catalog will dispel that notion with its descriptions of the nearly 90 different strains it offers. These and other specialty catalogs, such as Ronniger's Seed & Potato Company, Totally Tomatoes, and Vermont Bean Seed Company, are practically minicourses on their particular crops.
Similarly, regional catalogs cater to gardeners living in certain parts of the country. Vesey's, in Maine, offers seed adapted to cold climates and shorter growing seasons. Territorial Seed Company produces one catalog for the Northwest, another for the rest of the U.S., and a third for Canada. Kilgore's Florida Planting Guide is one of the few specifically written for just one state.
Then there are the "something-for-everyone" catalogs such as Burpee, Ferry-Morse, Harris, Henry Field, Gurney's, Park Seed, and Stokes that offer a wealth of flowers, vegetables, and landscape plants. These catalogs often feature sections devoted to heirlooms or specialty packages, such as an annual everlastings garden and a butterfly-attracting garden, with garden designs plus seeds.
Putting the pictures in perspective
Buying seed is unlike any other type of shopping because you cannot see exactly what you are buying. It's a fantasy business. You are purchasing the promise of a butterfly garden or of an 8-foot-tall burgundy sunflower. With photos, illustrations, or descriptive words, the seed company tries to help you picture what you will be getting when the plants mature.
Photos, especially of flowers, stimulate the senses and trigger the "I have to have this" response. Photos are the most useful when they show you something you haven't seen before. Everyone knows what a ripe red tomato looks like, but "Whirligig Hybrids" zinnias are new to many.
However, images can be misleading. Our gardens often don't produce anything as picture perfect as what we see in catalogs. Our plants will be battered by wind, rain, and insects. Some colors, such as certain blues, are difficult to reproduce in catalogs, and color can vary according to the type of printing process and paper used. The same variety of morning glory may appear to be different colors in different catalogs. Photos also can make a tiny flower look much larger and showier. I've succumbed to this "photo illusion" on more than one occasion.
Reading between the lines
Once you get beyond the pictures, the variety descriptions can help put a plant's attributes into clearer perspective. Descriptions usually include specifications, such as plant height and spread, flower size, fruit size, the number of days to fruit or flower. Of course, these numbers are rough estimates because every garden has a unique climate. The written descriptions are also places for the company's expertise to show through. When the description gives a lot of concrete information about the attributes of a plant and details about how to grow it, this increases your confidence in that company and your chances of success.
Catalog companies steer away from negative words to describe a plant, but some companies are more direct than others about pointing out a plant's drawbacks. For example, the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog description of the heirloom 'Old Time Tennessee' muskmelon reads "Must be harvested exactly at peak ripeness and not a good keeper, but flavor is outstanding." Now you know that if you can only get to the garden once a week to check for ripe fruits, you're better off selecting a different variety. This truthfulness in advertising might just sell you on buying from a particular company. Of course, words can be misleading too. If you compare flowers on the basis of descriptive words alone--a "gorgeous" flower versus a "beautiful" flower versus a "lovely" flower--the terms become meaningless. Watch for certain words that may be telling you more than you think. For example;
* "Mild-tasting" might mean bland.
* A "vigorous" grower may take over the garden.
* Vegetables touted for their "beauty" may not be especially tasty.
* A "pungent" plant may actually have an offensive smell.
* "Late-maturing" could mean risky in all but warm regions.
Legally, there are only a few specifics that must be on all seed packets. In 1940, the U.S. Government passed the Federal Seed Act, which guarantees a certain level of quality for all vegetable seed sold in packets weighing less than 1 pound. The law requires that the packet include information about the type and variety of seed enclosed and the company name and address. In addition, hybrid seed must be labeled as such. If the seed has met or has exceeded the federal germination standard for that variety, the packet does not need to contain any information about germination percentage. If the germination rate was lower than the standard for that type of vegetable, the packet must state that the seed is below standard and include the germination percentage and the date of the test. There are no federal regulations for flower seed packets; however some states do have requirements.
A handful of seed companies, such as Seeds of Change, sell only organic seed, while some companies offer organic seed for certain crops. Though there is not yet a legal definition of the term "organic," it generally suggests a system of farming that replenishes the fertility of the soil, enhances biodiversity, and eschews chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Unfortunately, organic is not always synonymous with better. As Rob Johnston, owner of Johnny's Selected Seeds, states in the catalog, "We know many first class growers using some chemicals who are taking better care of their land and producing a healthier product than some unskilled growers who avoid all chemicals."
If you prefer organic seed, buy from a reputable company or ask about the company's growing practices to better understand how their seed is produced. Keep in mind that organic seed is simply not available for some varieties. If you limit yourself to organic seed, you may have fewer varieties from which to choose, but this can be a good way to narrow the options!
Some seeds, especially of crops such as cucumbers, melons, and sweet corn, are treated with fungicides to help them germinate and grow in cool, wet soils. Often this can spell the difference between success and failure. Commercial growers prefer treated seed because the loss of a crop is quite costly. Many home gardeners prefer untreated seed because they don't want to expose themselves to the chemical residue on the seeds and, besides, they can replant more easily if seeds fail to germinate. Some companies such as Seeds of Change and Johnny's Selected Seeds offer untreated seed. Unless the catalog mentions that the seed hasn't been treated, chances are good that the seed has been. Contact the company to be sure.
You can get good deals on seed, but, in general, you get what you pay for. Seed advertised as the cheapest could be low priced because it has a minimum germination rate or low purity. The germination rate is the percentage of seeds in a batch that germinated during testing, and this can vary depending on how the seed is harvested and stored. Purity reflects the degree to which the seeds in the batch are from plants that exactly match the variety description. Seeds with a high germination rate and high purity are costlier to produce, and the costs are often passed along in the price of the seed. For this same reason, hybrid seed is often costlier than open-pollinated seed. Some of this information may be on the seed packet itself; this varies depending on the company.
Save money on seed by purchasing packets that contain fewer seeds. Some companies, such as Pinetree Garden Seeds, specialize in small seed packets. Most of its seed packets cost less than a dollar, and many of them still contain more seeds than you'll probably use. You can buy enough seed for a 6-foot-square bed of 'Bloomsdale' spinach for only 40 cents. Or consider buying from companies, such as Johnny's Selected Seeds, Park Seed, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, that offer resealable packets. This makes saving seed from one season to the next more convenient.
You can also save money by limiting the number of companies you order from, since most charge a few dollars for shipping and handling. If you order only one or two packets from a company, you may find that shipping and handling cost more than the seeds themselves. Or consider a company such as Ferry-Morse, which offers free shipping on orders over $10. Most gardeners can exceed that amount, even after reason takes over.
One thing all seed companies have in common is the desire for your loyalty. Virtually every company offers a money-back guarantee if you are not satisfied with the seeds. Beyond that, many provide customer assistance from experienced gardeners. Toll-free numbers or on-line resources are a bonus if you have questions. Take advantage of a company's expertise, and by all means let it know if you have a problem with seeds or service.
Kathy Bond Borie is Co-Director of Educational Media for National Gardening.
Photography by John Goodman